Why Retrofuturism Never Goes Out of Style

Retrofuturism is a term that tends to get bandied about willy-nilly, and has been used to describe everything from Betamax and VHS technology to the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and Brazil (1985), from landline telephones and early desktop computers to Metropolis (1927) and Men in Black (1997), from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Walkman’s, and from Deloreans and jumpsuits to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and The Incredibles (2004).

It is also, unfortunately, too-often used incorrectly.

So what does retrofuturism really mean? Why is it used incorrectly? And why does it never seem to go out of fashion?

Answering this first question is tricky, as retrofuturism is a somewhat nebulous term that can be open to interpretation. On one hand, the most simplistic definition, which you’ll find worded similarly in just about any dictionary anywhere, is that it’s a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era. On the other hand, according to retrofuturist artist Bruce McCall, whose recent TED talk on the subject helped reintroduce it to contemporary audiences, it is an artistic method that involves “looking back to see how yesterday viewed tomorrow.” And then there’s the Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “the future as it was envisioned by people from past eras.”

Self-evidently, many different people lay claim to it and apply their own definitions to suit their own purposes. However, by doing so, a multitude of problems are thrown up. If retrofuturism simply means “a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era” or “the future as it was envisioned by people from past eras,” then ipso-facto every piece of past science fiction can be considered retrofuturistic, as can any past technology that was considered futuristic. This is an absurd proposition, no doubt, but one that fits these definitions and leads to things like Barbarella (1968), pocket calculators, the Mad Max series (1979-1985, 2015), boom boxes, Logan’s Run (1976) fax machines and Escape From New York (1981) being considered retrofuturistic.     

In light of this, it’s perhaps best to define retrofuturism both differently and more specifically. Accordingly, to parse the definitions used by science fiction scholars and futurists, we might best call it a fascination for a future that never was combined with an ironic or unique twist on past views of the future. In this way, it is as much about the creators’ intent as it is about the aesthetic they employ – retrofuturistic works don’t happen by accident, but are instead borne of deliberate decisions on the part of their creators to appropriate and employ visions of the future that have long since passed.

In other words, retrofuturism is the revival of historical conceptions of the future. Or, to put it more plainly, retrofuturism refers to artistic works that are both steeped in nostalgia and directly inspired by the imagined futures of writers, artists and filmmakers of the past. 

But what does this mean in practise? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by breaking down an example of a piece of science fiction that is unarguably retrofuturistic, and comparing it with one that definitely isn’t. So: Mars Attacks (1996) and The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-2018).

Regarding Mars Attacks, director Tim Burton has never denied his retrofuturistic intentions. After all, its screenplay is based on a series of cult trading cards from 1962 – created by artists Wally Wood and Norman Saunders, writer Len Brown and art director Woody Gelman – and Burton has time-and-again acknowledged the direct influences of the cards’ visual style on his film. But even an audience with no awareness of these roots can’t help but see its retrofuturistic intentions, as Mars Attacks is crammed full of shiny-chrome, aerodynamically-ridiculous flying saucers; tubular ray-guns that shoot primary-coloured laser blasts; bright green, bobble-headed aliens with bulbous heads and enormous eyes; spherical space helmets and chunky spacesuits; towering analogue computers adorned with knobs, buttons, dials and levers; dim-witted soldiers and hawkish military commanders; and white-coated, pipe-smoking scientists who pontificate ad nauseam.

It barely needs saying, but all of these elements are hallmarks of Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction, which occupied a historical period when space travel and a deep understanding of the universe was in its infancy (and are perhaps the most popular referents when it comes to retrofuturism). In fact, these elements wouldn’t be out of place in one of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell’s books, and featured heavily in the exploitative alien invasion films of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, Mars Attacks is so firmly steeped in this Pulp science fiction aesthetic that it quite easily could have been a product of that era, if we look past its blackly comic tone, tongue-in-cheek outrageousness and absurdity, and high-quality special effects. But it wasn’t, and these qualities that we would need to look past are precisely what make it a product of the 1990s – such traits can also be seen in Men in Black, Spaced Invaders (1990), Demolition Man (1993), Starship Troopers (1997) and Galaxy Quest (1999). And its retrofuturistic credentials are burnished even further when we look at some of the defining themes of science fiction from the 1990s. The emergence of the internet, clone technology, virtual reality, shock-and-awe warfare – these are all hallmarks of this period, reflecting their place in the real world, and Mars Attacks bucks against them all, existing instead as an over-the-top alien invasion work that wears its nostalgia on its sleeve. Thus, we can unarguably define it as a piece of retrofuturism, for it is undeniably steeped in nostalgia and directly inspired by the imagined futures of the past, while simultaneously exhibiting an ironic and unique twist on said imagined futures.

And so to The X-Files, which none other than The New Yorker has claimed as a piece of retrofuturism. With its millennial angst, brick-like mobile phones and heavy emphasis on government cover-ups and alien abductions, it undoubtedly feels quaint and retro from our 21st-century perspective. But hindsight doesn’t equal retrofuturism, and the presence of these elements is precisely what disqualifies The X-Files from being defined as such. It is, above-and-beyond anything else, a definitive product of its time – the 1990s was the era of Y2K panic, conspiracy theories, crop circles and distrust of the government, and in which trash talk shows hosted by the likes of Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael and Geraldo Rivera regularly featured ordinary Americans who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. The X-Files rode this cultural wave, with the word “zeitgeist” being regularly applied to it, and its tagline of “The Truth is Out There” entering pop-culture parlance. Make no mistake, while it may nowadays seem retro and undeniably has some resonances with science fiction of the past – shadowy government agencies and vast conspiracies with Earth-shaking ramifications have been a staple of the genre almost since its inception – it was nonetheless never backward-looking, and its success and raison d’être never depended on the science fiction of the past.

In summary, it is this conflation of “retro” and “retrofuturistic” that leads many people to wrongly define the latter and apply it works of science fiction that are solely the domain of the former. If you look back to the some of the examples provided in the opening of this piece, this becomes blindingly apparent. The influence of German Expressionism on Metropolis might seem dated today, but it was cutting edge at the time; the original Star Wars trilogy was a remarkable work of escapism, but the chunky/ugly aesthetic of its technology was far removed from the gleaming chrome and organic design of Pulp science fiction; the “mod” style of the future portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfectly in synch with the mod style of the late 1960s. And this becomes even more apparent when contrasted with examples such as Men in Black, which heavily relied on the gleaming chrome of Pulp science fiction and the black-suited government agents of detective fiction, or the clunky analogue technology underpinning the futuristic sweeping surveillance systems seen in Brazil, or the James Bond-esque vibe and colour scheme of The Incredibles.

In light of this, we then need to ask why retrofuturism never seems to go out of fashion. As is always the case when it comes to art, culture and the intersection thereof, we can’t definitively answer questions like these. But what we can do is make educated guesses, and when it comes to the continuing popularity of retrofuturism a strong case can be made that one of the main reasons for its continuing popularity is because it involves an exploration of the tension between past, present and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology.

In effect, retrofuturism can provide a comforting and nostalgic contrast to a vision of the future that creates in us a sense of dissatisfaction or discomfort. Here we need to keep in mind that much Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction – which are, as previously mentioned, perhaps the most popular referents when it comes to retrofuturism – was optimistic about both the future and the advances in technology that might lie ahead. Clean-energy jetpacks and flying cars, robots that allowed us more time for leisure and philosophical thought, colonies on the moon or on other planets, humanity united by technology, new building materials and styles that made the world safer and cleaner, advances in technology that benefit and improve the environment – these are positive and hopeful touchstones of Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction, which existed side-by-side and in contrast to its more grim portraits of futures full of invading alien hordes and post-apocalyptic landscapes. In other words, Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction gave us fantastic and buoyant versions of the future, ones in which life and the world around would get better and better.

But what do we have today? What does the future look like from our 21st-century present?

To many of us, it looks dark indeed. After all, we live in a world of climate change, global terrorism, massive inequality and rising authoritarianism. A world of overpopulation and societal decay, in which corporations and governments have never had more power over we, the people. A world in which technology has divided us as much as it has united us; in which new building materials and styles have, for the most part, made the world more dangerous and dirtier, rather than safer and cleaner; and in which advances in technology have tended to disadvantage and despoil the environment, rather than benefit and improve it. And we live in a world in which technology has given us fake news, social media addiction and drone strikes, rather than jetpacks, flying cars and robot servants.

The kinds of futures promised by Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction has failed to materialise, and instead we’re left with all of the above and more. In light of this, it’s barely surprising that people have, in the words of noted science fiction scholar Robert Latham, “nostalgia for a time of forward-looking hope and romance.” And this is precisely what retrofuturism offers – its creators give us worlds that are better than the one we live in today, and better than the one we’ll be living in tomorrow. They give us the chance to re-evaluate technology and our relationship with it, creating spaces where it exists to benefit our lives and the world around us. They remind us that the future can be brighter than the present, and that it can be something we look forward to rather than dread and regard with pessimistic apprehension.

In short, they give us hope. They give us optimism. And they bring back positive ideals and aspirations for the future that have are too-often left behind and forgotten.

(Originally published in Aurealis #126, November 2019)

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